Critical View

Donovan Marley has been the artistic director of the Denver Center Theatre Company for twenty years, but this season -- which just opened with John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story -- is the last under his leadership. When he announced his pending departure last year, a seismic shiver went through the local theater world. Because whether admired for its artistry and professionalism or criticized for stifling the work of smaller, less-affluent companies, the DCTC has always been at the center of the local arts scene.

A major regional company like this plays a huge role in a metropolis. It can underline the still-vivid relevance of Shakespeare; encourage the form-shattering work of young playwrights; examine politics; bring writers of both sexes and varied races and nationalities into the fold; retain the faithful theater-goer; attract new, young audiences; show us productions currently creating a furor in London or New York; provide an understanding of what theater has been and where it's headed; and bring a sense of urgency and excitement to the community. The new artistic director will decide which of these goals to emphasize, and -- through example, challenge, the loaning out of actors and sometimes direct aid and advice -- will powerfully influence the tone and style of Denver theater.

Naturally, there's profound interest in the selection process, but the company's board, along with founder and chairman Donald Seawall, are being extraordinarily coy. While members could hardly be expected to name candidates under consideration, they are refusing to discuss even such elementary topics as timeline, process and the qualities they're seeking. Will Denver get a sophisticated Brit, an ironic Eastern European, an anti-colonialist, the director of a solid regional company, a savagely blunt-tongued smasher of furniture and convention, a young titan on her way to greatness? Will the new artistic director cooperate with local theaters and audition Denver actors, or remain aloof? No one is speaking in anything but platitudes.

"We're open to differing levels of experience," says Dorothy Denny, vice president of communication. "We want someone who will maintain our current wonderful mix of contemporary plays and classics."

Seawell, speaking through his publicity department, says only, "At the present, it's an ongoing search."

"My part was to give them a list, and I gave a list of 24," says Marley. "After that, my responsibility is to answer any questions I am asked." He adds, "I think they're looking for someone who is capable of leading a complicated multi-venue organization. There are many people who have experience running companies in which there's basically one theater and sometimes a second that may have a developmental program. But a theater like ours, that has four venues, all used for central programming -- there are not very many theaters like that."

Marley will remain available as a consultant through the transition.

One of Marley's primary achievements has been to assemble a strong permanent acting company. Actors who can focus on their art because they're assured of a regular salary are rare these days, when most major theaters hire at need. A permanent company serves theater-goers as well as actors. It's fun to watch an actor mature over time or stretch his technique to fit differing roles. It's also fun to see someone who's just starred in a production take a tiny role in another. You feel the pleasure of recognition and a sense of ownership. Sports fans may have John Elway, but theater-goers have Jamie Horton, Annette Helde, Randy Moore, Bill Christ, Kathleen M. Brady, Jacqueline Antaramian and several others as good as anyone you'll see anywhere.

Younger roles are cast from the Denver Center's own school, the National Theatre Conservatory. This is laudable, but in practice it means that most of the young actors you see on Denver Center stages are far less talented than the middle-aged company members.

There's something a little safe and middle-aged about much of the company's repertoire, too. It's wonderful to see Molire, especially in Nagle Jackson's witty translations, and Noel Coward is always a pleasure. As a regular, you'll discover such contemporary English talent as Martin McDonagh, but you won't learn much about the new generation of American playwrights. And every now and then, there will be a production that just isn't worthy of a company of this stature -- a weak Hamlet, a misconceived Merchant of Venice, a neutered Picnic.

On the other hand, there have been many triumphs. Marley is committed to the work of August Wilson and has staged vivid, multi-layered productions of eight of the Pulitzer winner's ten plays, under the directorial hand of Israel Hicks. Marley himself directed Chekhov's The Three Sisters a couple of years ago. This production, which set the action in the Civil War South, was criticized by some purists, but it was beautifully acted and conceived, and it brought the play to pressing life.

The tech at the Denver Center tends to be spectacular -- and this is no minor or secondary achievement. Sometimes the costumes are so startling, inventive and elaborate, or the lighting so moodily beautiful, that these elements themselves make the evening worthwhile. And there are less flashy successes, like the tech for Visiting Mr. Green, a slight, charming piece that gained resonance not only from first-rate performances, but because of the tech designers' loving attention to detail: the grubby marks around the kitchen-cabinet handles, the blue light through the window, the mezuzah on the door.

Marley decided to leave because of financial cutbacks: His annual budget has gone down by $1.6 million from a high of $8.8 million in 2001. "At 67 years of age, I don't have to go into this next phase, which, frankly, doesn't interest me," he says. "The kind of literature I like to do requires more people: Cyrano, Hamlet, plays with casts of over twenty. I like to be challenged by the episodic pieces, the major literature in the world. The thought of doing continual seasons filled with two- to six-character plays is unattractive to me."

Yet some of the most moving experiences provided by the Denver Center have come in the shape of such small plays as Lobby Hero and Behind the Broken Words, the latter an evening of poetry spoken on a minimally furnished stage by Anthony Zerbe and Roscoe Lee Browne. Marley acknowledges that many important plays now have small casts because playwrights realize that large-cast scripts will never be produced.

No one knows if the new director will maintain a permanent acting company or retain the current members. "Anyone coming in, anyone capable of doing this job, will be so because he or she has been working with directors, designers and actors who have created the body of work that has called that candidate to the board's attention," Marley says. "Any director is going to be stepping into a larger responsibility, I suspect, than they have had before, and they are going to want around them those who helped them get to this point."

Marley says he talked to his actors at the beginning of this season's rehearsal period, reminding them that he himself brought 66 actors, artists and artisans with him to Denver in 1984 and that it was very likely that something similar would happen next May: "I told the company that in my opinion, the directors and designers are the most vulnerable; the second most vulnerable are actors who have been seen in a series of leading roles. Actors in character parts are the least vulnerable. After that, department heads."

He hopes to help his successor through the uncertainty to come. "There's a tradition in American theater that when the artistic director departs, he strips the desk of everything, but leaves a single sheet of paper in the upper right-hand drawer with, ŒOkay, here are where the potential bombs waiting to explode are, and here are a couple of people that you can count on when the blood is on the floor.'" He laughs. "I intend to honor that."

As for the rest of us, we can only wait and see.